Author Michael Kimmel Spurs Campus Discussions on Masculinity

Story posted February 23, 2012

Michael Kimmel gave a well-attended talk at Bowdoin recently on his 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, for an audience of more than 400 people. He then remained on campus the following day to participate in two masculinity workshops for staff and students.

“I like it when there’s follow-up,” Kimmel said. “I don’t want to just parachute in. Giving a lecture — it’s like a bungee jump. I like it when I’m asked to really engage with students.”

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Michael Kimmel is a prominent researcher and author on men and masculinity, and has written or edited more than twenty books. He is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in New York and the editor of Men and Masculinities, an interdisciplinary scholarly journal.

Kimmel’s visit last week coincided with a masculinity conference for male students spearheaded by the Student Activities Office and Allen Delong, director of student life and the Smith Union, with help from Bernie Hershberger, director of Bowdoin's counseling service and wellness programs, and Jarrett Young, assistant dean, student affairs. The all-male event, called the “Sh*t Guys Say,” was led by a handful of student facilitators and attracted about 70 students and 11 faculty and staff. The conference title references a YouTube phenomenon that's popular with college students, according to Delong. Participants, including Kimmel, discussed questions such as who had taught them about masculinity, what they liked and disliked about being men, and the difference between their experiences in high school and at Bowdoin.

“We had great conversations, and it was a great chance for guys to sit down and talk about being a guy at Bowdoin,” said Nate Hintze, associate director of student activities.

Much of the effort to bring Michael Kimmel to campus was made by Sarah Levin '13, a history major and sociology minor. She became interested in Kimmel after reading Guyland in Visiting Assistant Prof. Wendy Christensen's class, Sociology of Gender.

Levin says she wanted to start a conversation about masculinity at Bowdoin to fill a silence on campus. "A number of fantastic organization put on dozens on events for women each year — events for women's health, sexuality, body image and spirituality — but I wondered where men go when they are struggling with what our society defines as masculinity. We have an amazing Women's Resource Center at Bowdoin and while I am sure the wonderful staff there would love to have a conversation about masculinity with any Bowdoin man, I didn't think that the average Bowdoin guy would be likely to enter a building marked "Women's Resource Center" to talk about his manhood," she said. Kimmel's talk was sponsored by the student group Bowdoin Men against Sexual Violence.

Before the Guy Summit, Kimmel spoke at a workshop for deans, coaches and other staff who work closely with male students. Kimmel explained to them he had written Guyland to explore a relatively new phase in the development of young people that falls between adolescence and adulthood. “It’s taking people a whole decade to achieve adulthood,” and to pass the classic benchmarks of marriage, house, children and solid career path. “And I set out to map this stage of development.”

Kimmel joked that if you talk to parents of young people, they say both that “10 is the new 30,” as they despair over their child’s precociousness, and also that “30 is the new 20,” as they despair about their unemployed kid living in the basement.

This new developmental phase is one "of remarkable gender insecurity,” Kimmel continued, and consequently, he's found that young men trying to prove their masculinity may turn to binge drinking, pornography, video games or initiations.

When they come to college, boys are bursting to express themselves and prove they’re men, Kimmel explained — a process that for much of history has been guided by adults. So right at this time when they most need adults, they're left on their own. While coaches, professors and parents are certainly present, these older mentors also begin withdrawing at this time, turning their backs on the more personal, private sides of young people. “So you have a vacuum when young men need them the most,” Kimmel said.

Following his opening remarks, Kimmel fielded questions from the workshop attendees on how to deal with certain situations, such as how to counsel a male student-athlete who’s too injured to play his sport, the best way for female staff to communicate with male students about gender and sexuality issues, and how to grapple with alcohol and sexual predation.

On this last point, Kimmel said sociological data could help reinforce a different norm, and suggested that Bowdoin conduct a survey of drinking and sexual habits on campus. He said many young men drink to excess because they’re under the impression other men around them are drinking a lot — when in fact, it’s not true. The same goes for hooking up. Students might believe that 80% of other students are sexually active when “the reality is it’s 5% to 6%,” Kimmel said.

“These guys are thinking, ‘Everyone’s getting laid except me, so tonight I’m going to get laid; I don’t care with whom',” Kimmel said. “But if we find actual data, it’ll be an enormous relief to this imagined ideal.”

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